Plan to send humans to Mars

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The world’s first space tourist, United States multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, has announced the plan, involving his non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation.


It calls for sending a man and a woman on a year-and-a-half mission to Mars and back.

On the 5th of January, 2018, the planets will literally align, allowing a spaceship to travel from Earth to Mars and back again in 501 days.

In a rare opportunity, the flight path between the two planets will be a route allowing gravity to guide the flight with no need for major rocket-engine firings.

The two space travellers selected for the mission would not land on the Red Planet — or even enter its orbit — but just fly through the vicinity and back.

The United States space agency, NASA, has aimed for the 2030s in its vague projections of a manned mission to Mars.

It is focusing, in the shorter term, on sending robots, like the Curiosity Rover that landed last year.

Inspiration Mars, by contrast, is starting essentially from nothing, with neither a vehicle nor a clear source of funding.

But founder Dennis Tito, a former NASA astronautical engineer, says it is a pretty easy mission.

“We fly within a hundred miles (160 kilometres) of Mars. I mean that’s essentially being there. It’s just that easy to go out, swing by, use the gravitational shift of Mars and come back to earth. Just like a boomerang, you don’t need to have any propulsive manoeuvres. It’s really simple.”

An Australian space expert, Jonathan Nally, says, by foregoing a landing, the mission lessens the risks and simplifies the manoeuvring required.

And, he says, the five-year time frame is too short for the appropriate technology to be developed for a landing.

“Not really enough time to develop the kind of landing craft to get you down to the surface in these huge heat shields and all the problems of living on the surface of another planet, and then getting off again. To do that kind of mission, you need all those extra technologies, and, also, you’d need the different kind of trajectory and alignment of the planets, which would give you a three-and-a-half-year mission, as opposed to this new proposal, which would only be a one-and-a-half-year mission.”

The Inspiration Mars Foundation acknowledges it will be a risky mission.

But the foundation’s chief technology officer, Taber McCallum, says it is achievable.

Mr McCallum says existing technologies and systems only need to be properly integrated, tested and prepared for flight.

But he says it will be a bare-bones* mission, with as little automation as possible and the crew doing its own repairs and responsible for its own water and waste management.

“The crew will drink the same water over and over again, breathe the same oxygen over and over again. In fact, the crew’s drinking water will be recycled from urine and perspiration that’s processed through distillation and filtration systems, and they’ll probably drink the same water every other day. We’ll get the contaminants out of the atmosphere by oxidising them and treating them, just the way it’s done on the International Space Station. And, of course, the crew will consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide and water. We’ll scrub that carbon dioxide and water out of the air and, through a series of chemical processes, remake the oxygen available for the crew to breathe over and over again.”

Taber McCallum was one of eight people to live in a sealed artificial world, known as Biosphere 2, for two years in the early 1990s.

He and his wife Jayne Poynter — they met during the project — are considered experts in how to live in confined spaces.

Jayne Poynter says the psychological and behavioural health of the crew is a major challenge for the mission.

Ms Poynter says, as the man and woman selected are going to be confined alone together for 501 days, they will need external support.

“And so, of course, that’s what we’ll be offering the crew on Inspiration Mars. They will get psychological support during the mission. They will get extensive training before the mission in this, because there is a lot of training you can do to help. And then there’s, of course, the crew-selection process, and that will be a rigorous process to make sure the people we select are resilient and can, in fact, maintain an upbeat and happy attitude in the face of adversity.”

Dennis Tito says the mission will generate knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration.

“This is not a commercial mission. This is not a mission that, if it’s successful, I’m going to come out to be a lot wealthier. Let me guarantee you, I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them.”